obituary: A. H. Chaplin

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The Independent Online
A. H. Chaplin was the penultimate Principal Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum, before the library departments of the museum were absorbed into the British Library in 1973.

Arthur Hugh Chaplin was the elder son of the Rev Herbert Chaplin. As a nonconformist minister his father moved frequently and Hugh was educated at a number of different schools including King's Lynn Grammar School and Bedford Modern School before taking his degree at University College London. After brief periods as an assistant librarian at Reading University and Queen's University, Belfast, he entered the British Museum as an Assistant Keeper in the Department of Printed Books in 1930.

All Assistant Keepers in the department were trained in cataloguing as a basic skill, and Chaplin devoted much of his career to various aspects of this work, becoming an acknowledged expert in the field. He also shared the other tasks of the library, including deputising for the Superintendent of the Reading Room and selecting books and periodicals to be acquired - he dealt with Spanish, Portuguese and Latin American material.

Many of his colleagues left the museum during the Second World War to serve in the Armed Forces or in government departments, but Chaplin was one of those who remained in order to keep the library service in operation, largely for the benefit of persons engaged in work of national importance. After one of the bookstacks was destroyed with the loss of some 250,000 volumes on the night of 10/11 May 1941 (a night when several of the upper- floor galleries of the museum were also burnt out), he helped with the salvage work, which went on for many months.

When the war ended and the recruitment of new staff began Chaplin was engaged in training the new entrants in cataloguing. He also became a Labour member of Holborn Council, and devoted much of his spare time to improving the library service of the borough.

In the late 1940s he was put in charge of current cataloguing, and in 1952 he was also given the responsibility for editing the revised edition of the general catalogue, the publication of which had begun in 1931. In recognition of the fact that he was in charge of all aspects of cataloguing he was in 1953 promoted to be a Deputy Keeper.

The slow progress of the revised edition of the catalogue was causing concern and Chaplin now helped F.C. Francis, one of the Keepers of the department, to plan an unrevised photolithographic reprint as a substitute. By the time the first volume of this appeared in 1960, Chaplin had been transferred to other duties.

After a brief period as Superintendent of the Reading Room in 1959 he was promoted Keeper in the same year and put in charge of reader and information services. His cataloguing expertise was however put to good use in 1961 when he organised an International Conference on Cataloguing in Paris. His work in this connection was described as brilliant.

In 1966 he was promoted Principal Keeper of Printed Books. A year later the library was thrown into turmoil when Harold Wilson's government suddenly, and without any consultation with the trustees of the museum, announced that the long-planned building for the expansion of the library would not be built on the designated site to the south of Great Russell Street. A committee was set up under the chairmanship of Fred (later Lord) Dainton to examine the whole future of the national libraries system, and until this reported in March 1969 the Department of Education and Science blocked all developments in Chaplin's department. He had put forward plans for considerable changes soon after he became Principal Keeper and, in his final report before he retired in the summer of 1970, he commented ruefully on how few of them had come to fruition.

He was put under enormous pressure to compile evidence to be presented to the Dainton Committee, and the calm way in which he coped with this was much admired.

In his retirement he and his wife, Irene Marcouse, remained active in Labour politics, and he kept up his links with the Library Association, of which he had been a member of Council from 1964 to 1970. He became a Fellow of University College London in 1969, and served as a member of the Senate of London University from 1973 to 1979. For 10 years he worked on a history of cataloguing in the Department of Printed Books from the 1830s. This was published in 1987 under the title GK: 150 Years of the General Catalogue of Printed Books in the British Museum, and is a concise and clear account of a very complicated subject.

His wife was incapacitated by a stroke for several years before her death in 1990, and during this trying time he cared for her devotedly. In 1995, when a lunch in his honour was given by Michael Smethurst, one of the Directors General of the British Library, to celebrate his 90th birthday, Chaplin was still as lucid and fluent as ever. Difficulty with walking obliged him to give up his second-floor flat at 44 Russell Square which he had occupied for over 50 years, and move to ground-floor accommodation nearby. His final illness was mercifully brief.

Arthur Hugh Chaplin, librarian: born 17 April 1905; Assistant Librarian, Reading University 1927-28; Assistant Librarian, Queen's University, Belfast 1928-29; Assistant Keeper, Department of Printed Books, British Museum 1930-53, Deputy Keeper 1953-59, Keeper 1959-66, Principal Keeper 1966- 70; CB 1970; married 1937 Irene Marcouse (died 1990); died London 24 December 1996.